Two books cover the figures of two eccentric critics, Harold Rosenberg (1906-1978) and Reyner Banham (1922-1988). Debra Bricker Balken has published the first complete biography of a New York intellectual usually associated with the promotion of abstract expressionism, for decades a presence in the city’s cultural life; and Richard J. Williams offers an eclectic interpretation of the life and work of an iconoclastic writer who from the margins of the Establishment revamped our perception of modern architecture through his obsession with technique and popular culture. Of humble origins, trained in disciplines foreign to the focus of their writings, and unaligned with conventional academe, Rosenberg and Banham left their best legacy in articles and books.
The son of a modest Jewish tailor and a law graduate who never practiced, Rosenberg reconciled his Marxist convictions with an independence that distanced him from New York’s progressive elite, finding his best conversation companions in the world of artists. In fact to this day he is associated above all with a text published in 1952 in ARTnews, ‘The American Actions Painters,’ a nod to the movement also known as abstract expressionism and led by his friends Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. Dispersed in a galaxy of publications but with collections of pieces such as those gathered in The Tradition of the New, a 1959 book still being reprinted, Rosenberg crystallizes in his intellectual itinerary the aesthetic and political debates that took place in the second third of the 20th century, and that remain pertinent today.
A generation younger, Peter Banham was born into a working-class family in Norwich, trained in the Bristol Aeroplane Company during World War II, and graduated from the Courtauld Institute of Art, where Pevsner directed his thesis, which would appear in 1960 as Theory and Design in the First Machine Age under his adopted name, Reyner. After a period with The Architectural Review and another at the Bartlett School of Architecture, during which he published his influential The New Brutalism and Architecture of the Well-tempered Environment, Banham crossed the Atlantic in 1976 to teach in Buffalo and Santa Cruz, and this phase produced his American books: Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Scenes in America Deserta, Megastructure, and A Concrete Atlantis. From his defense of mass energy consumption when The Silent Spring and the counterculture had created an opposite opinion, Banham challenged convention with a prolific and provocative prose that still stimulates and angers us in equal measure.